OPINION: Cannabis legalization must include social equity

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As more states close out their legislative session, some like Virginia which has become the 16th state to legalize marijuana for adult use have promised to focus on social justice. [1] And this is critical because the failed “war on drugs” has disproportionately hurt communities of color with pervasive racial targeting and arrests. At one point in the 1990s, we arrested and incarcerated four times more African American men here in the US, then the number of arrests of black men in South Africa under apartheid![2]  Between 1980 to 2007, every year African Americans were arrested at a rate of up to 5.5 times higher than whites on drug charges.[3]  And many on small possession charges for marijuana, which can then ruin someone’s life with a felony conviction on their record. [4]  And the sad irony is that the majority of states have now either completely legalized its use (16 states plus DC) or have decriminalized and/or allow medical use (29 states) meaning that in only 6 states does cannabis remain completely illegal.[5]

That is why the cannabis industry owes these communities a chance for social justice as well as part of the industry’s economic benefits.  Therefore, creating policies to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce within these communities is critical and one good example is the state of Illinois in this regard. Not only were they the first state to add automatic expungement of charges to their marijuana legalization bill,[6] they also have set up two excellent programs to help individuals within these communities gain access to this lucrative industry. Even aside from the injustices caused by disproportionate arrest and incarcerations, African American communities have among the highest rates of unemployment also due to institutional racism and lack of opportunity in work and education afforded to them.[7] Illinois recognized this and created policies to use revenue generated from adult-use cannabis to try to right this wrong.

The first policy is through education with an innovative vocational training program in the cannabis industry.[8]  The program provides technical assistance, scholarships and resources to social equity applicants through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity but is managed via the Department of Agriculture.  Through approved community colleges in Illinois the program prepares students to enter and work in the cannabis industry.  These students get hands on training in growing and product preparation as well as business management courses, so they can take the lead in obtaining the high wage, in-demand occupations in the cannabis industry.[9]  I feel this is a remarkable opportunity because, there’s not a lot of training in this industry in general.  So not only will it help those in affected communities get a chance to learn and gain entry, it will also help create industry standards which are so sorely needed in this nascent business climate. Additionally, hands-on training is important in many different industries, including medicine, where we need residency programs after medical school to complete our training and knowledge base. I would like to see these types of programs all over the United States.

Another huge barrier facing these communities trying to enter this profitable market is the high startup cost of entry, often requiring multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars in liquid personal assets in financial institutions. This can be a barrier even to middles class individuals let alone lower income communities where almost one-quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line.[10] Additionally, bank loans are usually not an option. First, the issue is that many financial institutions will not create loans for cannabis businesses due to the fears associated with its federal illegality and the federal laws related to money laundering.[11]  Added to that for these communities, many financial institutions have a history of being racially-biased, practicing predatory lending or loan denials with rates for African American 80% higher than for whites.[12]  Therefore Illinois’ second policy tries to circumvent some of these issues and affords economic opportunities into the cannbis industry by creating low-interest loans and grants for those social equity applicants.[13]  Through the Cannabis Business Development Fund, funded by licensing fees of existing cannabis businesses, last year making $21 million dollars in these low interest loans available.[14]

Unfortunately, while Illinois is in the forefront with these policies aimed at social justice, many, myself included would say it is still not enough, because how can you truly repay someone who has been racially discriminated against and lost years of their lives, in this unjust politically motivated futile and ridiculous “war on drugs.” We need to continue to strive to do better.


[1]Pedini J., Virginia governor approves expedited July 1 enactment date for adult-use marijuana legalization. Norml.org. Published March 31, 2021. https://norml.org/blog/2021/03/30/virginia-governor/. Accessed May 11, 2021.

[2] Haney C., Zimbardo P. The past and future of US Prison Policy. Am Psychol. 1998; 53(7) 709-727.

[3] Human Rights Watch. Decades of disparity: Drug arrests and race in the US. Published March 2, 2009. https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/03/02/decades-disparity/drug-arrests-and-race-united-states. Accessed May 11, 2021.

[4] American Civil Liberties Union. The war on marijuana in black and white. Published 2013. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/1114413-mj-report-rfs-rel1.pdf . Accessed May 11, 2021.

[5] Defense Information Systems Agency. Map of marijuana legality by state. Updated February 2021. https://disa.com/map-of-marijuana-legality-by-state. Accessed May 11, 2021. .

[6] Zimmerman S., Fairness is an issue in clearing low-level marijuana convictions. ABA Journal. Published April 1, 2020. https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/fairness-is-an-issue-in-clearing-low-level-marijuana-convictions. Accessed May 11, 2021.

[7] Economic Policy Institute. State unemployment by race and ethnicity. Updated August 2020. https://www.epi.org/indicators/state-unemployment-race-ethnicity/. Accessed May 11, 2021.

[8] Swinburne M., Hoke K., States’ effort to create an inclusive marijuana industry in the Shadow of an Unjust war on drugs. J Bus & Tech L. 2020; 15(2): 235-280. 

[9]Marshall M., Illinois community college cannabis vocational pilot program sets the stage for students eager to enter the industry. Cannabisbusinesstimes.com. Published November 19, 2020. https://www.cannabisbusinesstimes.com/article/illinois-community-college-programs-cannabis-training/ . Accessed May 11, 2021.

[10] Swinburne M., Hoke K., States’ effort to create an inclusive marijuana industry in the Shadow of an Unjust war on drugs. J Bus & Tech L. 2020; 15(2): 235-280. 

[11] Black J., Galeazzi M., Cannabis banking proceed with caution. ABA. Published February 6, 2020. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/business_law/publications/blt/2020/02/cannabis-banking/. Accessed May 11, 2021.

[12] Olick D., A troubling tale of black man trying to refinance his mortgage. CNBC.com. Published August 19, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/19/lenders-deny-mortgages-for-blacks-at-a-rate-80percent-higher-than-whites.html. Accessed May 11, 2021.

[13]Swinburne M., Hoke K., States’ effort to create an inclusive marijuana industry in the Shadow of an Unjust war on drugs. J Bus & Tech L. 2020; 15(2): 235-280. 

[14] Bishop G., Illinois makes the first $21 million in cannabis loans available to social equity applicants. Published December 19, 2019. https://www.thecentersquare.com/illinois/illinois-makes-first-21-million-in-cannabis-loans-available-to-social-equity-applicants/article_24e0864a-228a-11ea-a56a-77119427f6a6.html.  Accessed May 11, 2021.


Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board certified emergency physician, who also has a cannabis consulting practice for patients and industry. She is a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians. And in the inaugural class for the first Masters of Science in the country in Cannabis Science and Therapeutics at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.   

This blog is not written or edited by Hearst. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Leigh Vinocur